May 24, 2014

Jewish artists, writers wrestle with the Torah

“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah,” edited by Roger Bennett (Workman Publishing, 375 pages, $18)

“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah,” edited by Roger Bennett (Workman Publishing, 375 pages, $18)

Coming to terms with one’s identity is the crux of the conversations among 54 Jewish artists and writers. And what better focal point can there be for them than the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Unscrolled” is the outgrowth of the Reboot network, a 12-year-old project to engage a community of creative Jewish people to discuss personal questions about their own identities. In the process, the hope was to forge new ideas about themselves and to encourage a wider audience to do the same.

The effort began with a nucleus of people who interviewed 800 creative types, mostly young Jewish adults, in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles about themselves and their personal experiences. Those interviewed were excited to explore questions about Jewish history, theology, ritual, culture and philosophy. The respondents weren’t interested in the traditional efforts of Jewish organizations that have focused on survival and anti-Semitism as their raison d’etre. They wanted to define their identity and community on their own terms.

As a result, the Reboot network has generated hundreds of counter-Jewish-cultural projects: Sabbath Manifesto, promoting technology-free Shabbat; the Idelsohn Society, “exploring post-war history by taking re-releases of lost Jewish vinyl onto the ‘Billboard’ chart”; and a global architectural design contest to build a dozen avant-garde huts for the festival of Sukkot, among others.

With “Unscrolled,” the network engaged interested persons to look at the biblical texts that most have forgotten or ignored. The idea was to determine the questions that would arise if 54 people individually read and wrestled with a single part of the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Since the Torah is traditionally divided into 54 sections with a section read each Sabbath in synagogues during a calendar year, 54 readers were engaged to read a specific section. “Unscrolled” is the fascinating and at times quirky outcome.

Contributors include an Emmy-winning television writer, an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal, a reporter at the New York Times, a Grammy-nominated producer, a university professor, an actor and director, and numerous authors. What enlivens the book is the variety of media used to provide an interpretation: cartoons, computer coding, architectural design, dramatic script and more. A section of the Torah is always the jumping off point. And where each lands is a lively and serendipitous adventure.

“Unscrolled” may be intended for Jews disenchanted by traditional religious practices, but anyone who knows the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures – creation, Noah’s ark, the Exodus from Egypt, etc., – will be challenged as they read how these contributors view the texts.

As the editor states: “Our highest hope is that this volume will cause you to follow this biblical text along with us throughout the year and wrestle with the narrative to come to your own conclusions – a ritual that has been faithfully followed for more than three thousand years.”

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